Kevin Gough: Who is the controversial attorney defending one of Ahmaud Arbery’s accused killers?

The defence attorney complaining about Black pastors attending trial is a former public defender who was supported by the local NAACP and was fired from the role for criticising the DA now charged with failing to bring Ahmaud Arbery’s killers to justice, Rachel Sharp writes

Thursday 18 November 2021 17:09
<p>Kevin Gough, the defence attorney for  William “Roddie” Bryan, in Glynn County Courthouse  </p>

Kevin Gough, the defence attorney for William “Roddie” Bryan, in Glynn County Courthouse

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The footage of Black 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery being chased and gunned down by three white men in a mostly-white neighbourhood near Brunswick, Georgia, last February sparked outrage across the world, with his name becoming a rallying cry for protesters demanding an end to systemic racism.

But, inside the Glynn County Superior Court where the three men are now on trial for his murder, much of the controversy has centered around an attorney for one of the defendants.

After the defence has spent the last 18 months arguing that race had nothing to do with the shooting death of Mr Arbery, attorney Kevin Gough has been making a string of complaints about Black pastors attending the trial.

Mr Gough, who represents William “Roddie” Bryan Jr, first raised eyebrows (even among those in his own defence team) when he complained last Thursday about Rev Al Sharpton’s presence in the courtroom and argued that having “high-profile members of the African-American community” present at the trial was “intimidating” and an attempt to “pressure or influence the jury”.

“We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here,” he told the court, before launching into a bizarre comparison to bringing in “Colonel Sanders dressed in white masks”.

The following day, the attorney stood up in the court and apologised “to anyone who might have inadvertently been offended” by his comments and the judge refused his request to ban Black pastors from the courtroom.

But, on Monday, Mr Gough was at it again, asking the judge to remove civil rights leader Rev Jesse Jackson from the courtroom.

As his argument fell on deaf ears, he then chose another line of attack on the veteran civil rights leader - complaining that his face mask was “down below his nose”.

Mr Gough, meanwhile, has been maskless for the entirety of the trial, even admitting during his complaint against Rev Jackson that he is “not a big believer in masks”.

The attorney made yet another play the following day, filing a motion to keep a record on who appears in the courtroom.

Lawyer in Ahmaud Arbery Case Doesn’t Think ‘Black Pastors’ Belong in the Courtroom

Then on Wednesday, he asked the judge to declare a mistrial because of Rev Jackson’s presence in the courtroom.

Despite each request being denied by the judge, Mr Gough persevered again on Thursday in asking the court to exclude Rev Sharpton and Rev Jackson from the courtroom.

The attorney admitted that even he had “lost count” of how many times he had raised the complaint. Once again, his request was denied.

While Mr Gough’s complaint about Black pastors has proven unpopular, it’s perhaps also surprising coming from an attorney who used to be a public defender and previously had a strong relationship with the local NAACP chapter.

But Mr Gough isn’t one to shy away from controversy.

The experienced criminal defence attorney hit headlines back in 2016 when he was fired from his role as Circuit Public Defender for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit and threatened to go on hunger strike.

And he has a bizarre link to the trial of Mr Bryan and his co-defendants Gregory and Travis McMichael after this firing came about in part because of his criticism of the very same district attorney now facing criminal charges for her handling of the McMichaels’ arrests for Mr Arbery’s murder.

The Arbery family attorney Ben Crump, Rev Al Sharpton and Ahmaud Arbery’s family outside the courthouse last week

Now 59, Mr Gough is a well-known figure around the legal world of Brunswick where he has worked as an attorney since 1987.

He attended the College of William and Mary in Virginia before studying at the University of Georgia Law School.

For the three decades since, he has worked as an attorney in Georgia including as an assistant district attorney and then as Brunswick Judicial Court public defender, according to his company website.

He was appointed to the role of Brunswick Judicial Circuit public defender in 2012 - a role where he represented the poorest, most disadvantaged clients until his dramatic firing four years later.

He also spent two years as the legal director of the Poor and Minority Justice Association of Georgia - a civil rights origination defending poor and minority communities and founded by well-known minister Clayton Cowart.

In 2020, Mr Gough represented a group of worshippers of the minister’s Redeeming Love Church of God the Bibleway who continued holding church services in defiance of the state’s shelter-in-place order during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, Mr Gough runs his own criminal defence law firm Kevin Gough Firm LLC.

Mr Gough is also a proud Republican and has twice been elected as chair of the Republican Party of Glynn County and has served on the district and state committees of the Georgia GOP, according to a biography on the Republican National Lawyers Association.

Before his controversial defence strategy as Mr Bryan’s attorney, Mr Gough last hit headlines over his 2016 firing as Brunswick Judicial Court public defender which divided opinion in the local area.

Just two weeks before he was ousted by the Georgia Public Defender Council, the firebrand public defender had given an interview with CBS47 criticising Jackie Johnson, the district attorney of Brunswick at the time.

He accused the DA of holding cases hostage, delaying the pursuit of justice for poor clients, wasting taxpayer money, and being too cozy with local police officers.

He also said Ms Johnson wanted him out of his position.

Kevin Gough surrounded by members of the Brunswick NAACP chapter after he was fired as Brunswick Judicial Circuit public defender in 2016

Days later, the council released a statement saying Mr Gough had been terminated amid allegations of poor representation of defendants and ill-treatment of assistant public defenders in his office, Brunswick News reported at the time.

Mr Gough denied the allegations and claimed he was being retaliated against for speaking out against the DA.

Surrounded by members of the Brunswick NAACP chapter, he announced to the media that he was going on hunger strike until he was reinstated and until issues raised by the NAACP Brunswick chapter’s Legal Redress Committee Chairman Rev Zack Lyde were addressed.

Civil rights activist Rev Leonard Small also spoke out in support of Mr Gough saying supporters were ready to fight for the rights of people unable to afford an attorney.

“Take the person who is most capable of defending the poor, the needy and the downtrodden and remove him from the office, what will they replace it with? With someone who will go about to get along,” he said at the time.

However, the then-Georgia Public Defender Council Executive Director Bryan Tyson who fired Mr Gough said his firing was down to several reasons including claims the attorney had retaliated against a female employee in his office who had complained about being sexually harassed by another employee.

Mr Tyson told the appeals hearing that Mr Gough had created a culture of “fear and intimidation” in the office and had also engaged in a “media campaign” against Ms Johnson, reported the New York Times.

Ms Johnson has since been ousted from her role as DA and criminally charged over her handling of the investigation into Mr Arbery’s death.

Ms Johnson has known Gregory McMichael for several years, after the former police officer spent two decades working as an investigator in her DA’s office.

On the day of Mr Arbery’s death, prosecutors said Gregory McMichael called the DA and left a voicemail asking “for advice”.

Ms Johnson is accused of directing police officers not to arrest Travis McMichael for Mr Arbery’s death and showing favour to her former colleague during the investigation.

Ms Johnson then recused herself from the investigation.

Jackie Johnson in a mugshot after being arrested and charged over her handling of the investigation into Ahmaud Arbery’s death

No charges were brought against the McMichaels or Mr Bryan for three months after the shooting, until footage of the incident was leaked online and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case.

This September, Ms Johnson was charged with violating the oath of a public officer and obstruction and hindering a law enforcement officer over the case. She denies the allegations.

Before the case of Mr Arbery’s death, Ms Johnson also faced accusations of mishandling an investigation into the police shooting death of 35-year-old mother-of-two Caroline Small.

Ms Small was unarmed when two Glynn County police officers opened fire on her car, with eight bullets passing through the windshield and striking her in the head. The two police officers were never charged.

Several former prosecutors in Ms Johnson’s office accused her of prosecutorial misconduct and a cover-up in that case.

Mr Gough’s ties to the DA have come full circle as he is representing Gregory McMichael’s codefendant Mr Bryan in the trial currently taking place at Glynn County Courthouse.

Aside from his repeated complaints and his racially-charged comments about the make-up of the public gallery in the trial, Mr Gough has also garnered attention throughout the trial for other reasons.

Kevin Gough with his client William “Roddie” Bryan Jr during the trial of the three white men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery

He has made repeated requests for a mistrial - including once before opening statements and once because Mr Arbery’s mother became emotional in court at the sight of her son’s bloodied corpse.

He also claimed it was against the jurors’ constitutional rights to come to the trial on Veterans Day.

And he complained that the jury pool lacked any “bubbas or Joe six-packs” - white men aged over 40 without college degrees - claiming he wanted “a diverse jury”.

This was before he and the other defence attorneys struck Black prospective jurors from the pool leaving a jury of 11 white people and one Black person in a move the judge described as an act of “intentional discrimination”.

This week, Mr Gough gave his opening statements after he was the only defence attorney to make the unusual request to wait to give his opening statement until after the prosecution rested its case.

He tried to distance Mr Bryan from the McMichaels saying that - where the father and son picked up their guns - he had picked up his cellphone before jumping in his pickup and chasing Mr Arbery.

“That speak volumes” about Mr Bryan’s intentions, Mr Gough said - before making his latest striking comment that his client’s home looked like “something out of a Norman Rockwell painting”.

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